Photos of People: The Ethics vs. the Art

As part of a homework assignment for my Journalism course I had to look up several online features. Now, since I am a travel-lover, I decided to look for articles about travelling. In my search I found the following interesting article on the BBC website titled “Ethical Traveller: Taking Photographs of People” accompanied by the following intriguing picture.

Photo from BBC article

Photo from BBC article

I have to admit that this picture is what made me press the read-more button and I am glad I did. It opened up a new debate for me.

When I am exploring a foreign country, I love to get to know different cultures and different people. I also love to capture these different cultures and people by taking pictures of them. This article argues, however, that it is more ethical to approach the people in an overt way before taking a picture, to really talk to them and ask for permission. I agree that these ethical constraints should be taken into account. How would you, a person from a part of the world that attaches a lot of value to privacy, feel if people took random pictures of you?

However, I have never fully considered these ethical constraints when taking pictures, probably because of the following reasons. Pictures that capture a person in his cultural environment or that capture a person in an action can create beautiful pictures, beautiful art. Asking a person beforehand, I feel, would destroy the original setting.

Woman in Boat

A woman in her environment

A Buddhist monk in action

Besides the art argument, there is also a more practical one: What about a picture involving many people? Should we ask all of them for permission?

Of course, every situation is different and I think that some do require clear restrictions. But I believe that the key-word is balance. With a little feel for timing and tact I think you can make pictures of people in certain situations. Another aspect, for example, is also what you’re going to use them for.

What do you guys think? Can you take pictures of people without them noticing?


7 thoughts on “Photos of People: The Ethics vs. the Art

  1. Funny, I was just thinking about this the other day! I don’t often take pictures of people myself, so in that sense the topic doesn’t apply to me, but I once caught a guy outside taking pictures of me when I was sitting at the window of a café. When I looked up (cause I had the feeling I was being watched), he lowered his camera and stared at me… Needless to say, I was really creeped out so yeah, if it’s possible, I suggest you ask your ‘model’ whether you can take a picture!

    • Haha that does indeed sound very creepy… Wouldn’t want someone to take a picture of me like that (nor would I take such a specific picture from another person). But what if, so to say, this guy was just taking a picture of the entire building as a tourist because he thought it was beautiful and you happen to sit in front of the window? Do you have to take these people into account that accidentely are part of a bigger setting?

      • I think it really depends on how visible the people are. If you can’t recognize faces, I don’t think it’s a problem. If, like my case, you take a picture of the front of a building, and you can clearly see the people sitting at the bar alongside the window, you should definitely think twice.

  2. It is not always possible or ethic to do so; especially when you know that people do not want this. For instance in India people belief (or believed when I was there in 1981) that they could not reincarnate anymore when their ghost ‘disappeared’ through the camera.
    In another country, Bolivia, I once visited a market and the women started throwing potatoes when I tried to make a photo.
    In general, you better destroy the original setting than leave behind a ‘destroyed’ person!

    • Thanks for the reply! Those are some very specific examples that indeed require some extra thinking. You always have to keep the culture of a country/society in mind!

  3. I’m not a picture person – I don’t take pictures often and I don’t like it when people take pictures of me, so from a personal perspective I’m definitely on the “leave people alone” side of the argument. Then again, it does ruin the picture, doesn’t it, to ask for permission? Because you kind of ‘go meta’ and thereby disrupt the very situation you’re trying to capture. Interesting.

    Lovely post!

    • Thanks for your comment! And yes that’s what I was trying to show. Also, it’s simply not always possible to take a picture of the surroundings without any other people on it.

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